The truth behind that red wine headache

If you’ve woken up feeling a bit shabby from a glass or two of the red stuff last night, you might be interested in what the experts have to say about your condition.

It goes without saying that this bit of wisdom might not apply if you regularly suffer migraines or had more than a couple of glasses, but experts have found that even if you’re not normally prone to a headache you can often feel the effect after having a simple glass of red wine.

Initially it was though that sulphites — a naturally occurring mineral in your food and widely used as an additive to prevent microbial spoilage and preserve colour — were to blame for your red wine headache, but experts believe this is highly unlikely and the real culprits are two other substances.

According to Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist in the department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, people became wary of sulphites when ‘contains sulphites’ started popping up on wine labels in the 1980s.

“They look at the bottle… and they think, ‘Oh my goodness, if it contains sulphites, that must be dangerous,” he says.

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Sulphites are often added to wine to keep it from oxidising and it’s a natural occurrence during the fermenting process. However, a small percentage of people actually have a sulphite allergy and this is why the acknowledgement started appearing on bottles.

Generally, headaches aren’t a common symptom of an allergy though, so where does this leave you and that little man with his tiny hammer inside your head?

Headache specialist and associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr Frederick Freitag says tyramine and tannins could be at the root of your red wine headache problem.

Tyramine is a naturally occurring amino acid and often a product of the fermentation process. Freitag says it’s had been known to affect blood pressure and can trigger a migraine if you happen to be a person unable to break down the substance in your body. Perhaps some good news is that you can reduce your risk of a headache if you consume wine with aged foods, especially cheese.

As for tannins, the evidence as to why this could be potentially problematic is stacking up. Although it’s a naturally occurring chemical substance found in wine, most tannins are found in the skin and seeds of the grapes. When it comes to making red wine those are kept in as part of the fermentation process, which is why you don’t have the same groggy feeling when, or even if, you drink white wine.

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Waterhouse says compounds that relate to the tannins can be absorbed in your bloodstream and metabolised by your body to open the blood vessels. It’s called ‘vasorelaxation’ and this is a key step in developing a headache.

Unfortunately one of the only ways to avoid a red wine headache would be to stop drinking red wine. If that’s not an option, there are a couple of other (more favourable) actions you can take to reduce the risk or prevent them altogether:

  • drinking two strong cups of coffee
  • switching from a heavy red (like a Cabernet or Merlot) to a lighter red (such as a Pinot Noir)
  • drinking water

Do you like red wine? Have you ever suffered a red wine headache?